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Australia must enshrine fed human rights act: advocates


Australia, as the only liberal democracy in the world that does not have a charter of rights, needs to urgently enshrine a federal human rights act, an inquiry has heard.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights discussed on Friday the need for Australia to legislate to ensure human rights violations and abuses are stamped out.

Several refugee and asylum seeker rights advocates said without such an act, Australia remains an outlier on the international stage.

"We know the consequences of not having a federal human rights Act. It's not a hypothetical question or an unknown," Refugee Legal's Dr Adrienne Anderson told the committee.

"Australia's inadequate protection of human rights has enabled ...over three decades of indefinitely detaining children and women, men and families, seeking our protection," 

"The practice of indefinite detention has been foundational to normalising a rights-violating culture in this country," she said.

Australia is one of few western nations not to set time limits on immigration detention.

Latest official figures show the average stint is 735 days, or almost two years.

Rachel Saravanamuthu, a senior solicitor with the Melbourne-based Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, criticised the Immigration Minister's executive powers.

"Given the Minister for Immigration has no less than 47 personal powers under the Migration Act, more than any other Commonwealth minister... greater mechanisms for accountability are required."

The inquiry heard that the establishment for an independent panel was needed as an immediate measure, to review the conditions for more than 1000 people in immigration detention centres, until a federal human rights act is legislated.

Immigration minister Andrew Giles' office has previously said the government was open to exploring measures aimed at addressing barriers to immigration status resolution and the risks of long-term detention.

David Manne, executive director of Refugee Legal, agreed the immigration minister's powers needed to have checks and balances.

"To give one politician in the country largely a free hand, largely unconstrained has all sorts of consequences politically".

"The core consequence of a human rights act would be to take it out of the political realm and do what is normal across the Australian legal system and to have an independent oversight process."

The inquiry's deputy chair Russel Broadbent objected to the Murugappan family being brought up in the hearing as an example of egregious human rights abuse.

The family, which escaped Sri Lanka by boat due to conflict targeting the minority Tamils, was given temporary protection visas but was then uprooted in March 2018 from Biloela, Queensland.

They were placed in a Melbourne detention centre, then detained on Christmas Island in August 2019 before being placed in community detention in Perth two years later.

Mr Broadbent said the Murugappans were 'not refugees'.

"They had no legal standing and if we don't protect the laws of the land regarding immigration whoever they are... then we don't have a system at all," the Liberal senator said.

But Ms Saravanamuthu pushed back saying "no child should be held in detention regardless of what their protection claims are".

"Both the children suffered serious medical issues, including one child's teeth rotting at the age of two and another developing a blood infection and they needed to be transferred for medical care," she recounted.

The Albanese government exercised its power under section 195A of the Migration Act to allow the family's passage home to Queensland last year after a long campaign by activists.